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A Risky NATO Tour for East Asia

Feb 07, 2023
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg visited South Korea and Japan from late January to early February. The move has been interpreted by many analysts as revealing Stoltenberg’s intent to intervene in East Asian affairs by creating an Asia-Pacific version of NATO. In my view, the core issue is not about NATO entering Asia but about the toll of the NATO security concept permeating the region. Heightened vigilance will be required.

In the first place, NATO lacks ability to substantively interfere in East Asian security. During his trip, Stoltenberg reiterated that the security of Europe and Asia are “closely interconnected.” In a statement issued after his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, China’s military development, Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula were covered at length. NATO’s new strategic concept for the alliance, which was approved at its Madrid summit in June last year, addressed China for the first time and underlined the need to intensify cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners.

South Korea opened its first diplomatic mission to NATO in November, and Japan said during Stoltenberg’s stay that it would also set up a mission there. In addition, for the first time, the leaders of South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand participated in the Madrid summit, which seemed to be another case in point that NATO is reaching out to Asia.

However, a foray into East Asian security actually goes beyond NATO’s capabilities. When asked whether NATO would intervene if a conflict were to erupt on the Korean Peninsula, he responded, “I think I will be very careful about speculating about hypothetical situations.” NATO is a military organization created for the North Atlantic region. If it were to extend its scope of action to East Asia, its member states would have to make a heavy investment of resources accompanied by major political resolve. During a meeting with then-Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, Stoltenberg said, "NATO will stick to the established geographical scope."

Second, the real danger for East Asian security lies not in a NATO entry but in the absorption of its security concept. There are two pillars in the NATO security concept: collective defense based on military deterrence, and confrontation between two ideological camps. Hence Stoltenberg’s South Korea and Japan tour was more that of a missionary than of a manifesto tour announcing that NATO would get involved in East Asian affairs. At its core was conveying the idea that military deterrence is useful for ensuring security as well as for the deontology of “the free world against authoritarianism.”

In NATO’s current Strategic Concept document, the collective defense of members based on deterrence and defense is repeatedly emphasized. The concept also reaffirms that it is military power that guarantees the safety and prosperity of member states. 

NATO has long been using dichotomous thinking to divide international relations into good and evil. During the Cold War, it used “freedom vs. autocracy.” Now it’s using “democracy vs. authoritarianism.” In fact, history has proved that NATO always holds a sword in one hand and a Bible in the other.

Third, an East Asian security concept based on dialogue and cooperation is the best way to balance the sprawl of the NATO security concept across the region. What the trip by the NATO chief conveyed is that for authoritarian governments, negotiation is possible only when deterrence is reinforced. The logic behind military deterrence is more useful than dialogue and cooperation — a concept under which the war in Ukraine happened as a result of lack of military deterrence, and a faster NATO expansion would have contained Russia. The same logic applies to China. NATO believes that it needs to beef up its military capacities further and quicker as a deterrent.

This is, from my point of view, a misinterpretation of the war in Ukraine. The war broke out not because NATO didn’t have sufficient capacities to deter but because Europe dropped out of dialogue with the East as it did during the Cold War and allowed military deterrence disproportionally to occupy its security mentality. Since the end of the Cold War, dialogue and cooperation on European security has become a thing among “like-minded” countries.

Although dialogue with “heterogeneous nations” is ongoing, it has been dwarfed by ideological correctness. Dialogue has become something like one-way missionary preaching, rather than two-way communication involving mutual respect.

As for Asian security, a mentality we should guard against is that the doctrine of seeking security through dialogue and cooperation is inefficient and useless in preventing war. Under such logic — as Asia has no NATO — deterring China will become more difficult if countries don’t bolster their alliances with the U.S. and expand their quasi-alliance networks.

In retrospect, given the history of Asian security, the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967 heralded a new security concept that rejected military deterrence and collective defense. A raft of regional dialogue and cooperation mechanisms, represented by the ASEAN Regional Forum in the post-Cold War era, have provided significant platforms upon which Asian nations can build and consolidate their trust in one another. From the founding of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to the new security concept and the global security initiative, China has fully inherited and developed a dialogue-based East Asian security concept. 

East Asia cannot afford to repeat the mistake of triggering a rapid deterioration in regional security by replacing dialogue and cooperation with military deterrence. 

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